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The Great Hunger : Ireland 1845-1849 by…
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The Great Hunger : Ireland 1845-1849 (1962)

by Cecil Woodham-Smith

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The Irish potato famine of the 1840s, perhaps the most appalling event of the Victorian era, killed over a million people and drove as many more to emigrate to America. It may not have been the result of deliberate government policy, yet British ‘obtuseness, short-sightedness and ignorance’ – and stubborn commitment to laissez-faire ‘solutions’ – largely caused the disaster and prevented any serious efforts to relieve suffering. The continuing impact on Anglo-Irish relations was incalculable, the immediate human cost almost inconceivable. In this vivid and disturbing book Cecil Woodham-Smith provides the definitive account.

‘A moving and terrible book. It combines great literary power with great learning. It explains much in modern Ireland – and in modern America’ D.W. Brogan.
  JESGalway | May 2, 2018 |
A book which has had a profound effect on me in beginning to understand the problem and problems of Ireland. Really started my love affair with the Emerald Isle. The British have a lot to be forgiven for. ( )
  revchrishemyock | Feb 19, 2018 |
The Potato Famine almost certainly caused more civilian deaths in Europe than any event since the Black Death and until the influenza epidemic of 1918. The exact tally isn’t known, but Ireland was the only European country with an overall population decrease in the nineteenth century, and apparently didn’t recover to a pre-Famine population level until well into the twentieth. The Famine also precipitated the great Irish Diaspora to the United States, which still colors American politics (When I lived in Chicago, I once completely forgot it was St. Patrick’s day and couldn’t figure out why traffic was so horrible on a Saturday until I crossed a bridge and noticed that the Chicago River below was bright emerald green. I don’t recall anybody dyeing the river on Kosciusko Day or von Steuben Day or Martin Luther King Day.)


Cecil Woodham-Smith’s (Cecil’s a she; I wonder why her parents didn’t name her Cecilia) account of the Famine is a great read, and provides a lot of insight into what happened and why. The basics are simple enough; the Irish peasantry depended on the potato; fungus blight destroyed almost the entire potato crop in 1845, 1846, and 1848; the Irish starved to death, died of disease, or fled to America.


It’s the details that are fascinating. The one unfortunate thing about this otherwise excellent book is that Woodham-Smith blames the laissez-faire policies of the British government for the disaster (well, it was politically correct to do so in 1962 when the book was published). However, Woodham-Smith’s own account makes it clear that the Famine was precipitated by a long series of non-market based government policies, and that by the time the famine got started, no possible government action could have done anything more than slightly ameliorate it (those wishing to make analogies to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans are entirely welcome to do so).


Although Woodham-Smith doesn’t go quite that far back, the whole thing started when England went Protestant and Ireland didn’t. That and subsequent disputes with Oliver Cromwell and King William III left Ireland largely in the hands of Protestant landlords and Catholic tenants. Various “anti-Papist” laws were enacted; the one with the most bearing on the Famine allowed primogeniture for Protestants but required Catholic land to be divided among all surviving male heirs at the death of the “owner”. (“Owner” is in quotes here because it wasn’t actually land ownership that was divided, but land tenancy).


A second factor was the Corn Laws. Woodham-Smith claims that no factor in English history other than outright civil war provoked more passion than the Corn Laws. These controlled the price of bread in England, prohibiting grain imports until the price of wheat rose above a certain level. Their repeal in 1845 was prompted by the Famine, but by then the damage was done.


Another factor was the Irish Poor Law. This required all landlords to contribute “rates” for the establishment of a workhouse for paupers in their area. This required landlords to collect rent from their tenants or go bankrupt. Under Irish law, these “rates” were assessed against the land, rather than the landowner, and remained attached to it as debts if they weren’t paid. Thus a bankrupt landlord usually couldn’t sell his land unless the buyer was willing to assume the debts.


A fourth contributor was not an economic policy, but the fact that the British ruling class was completely clueless about conditions in Ireland. As Woodham-Smith puts it


“…the desolate, starving west was assumed to be served by snug grocers and prosperous merchants and to be a field for private enterprise; bankrupt squireens, living in jerry-built mansions, with rain dripping through the roof, became country gentry, and plans for sea transport were made as if the perilous harbours of the west coast were English ports.”

The overall effect was this;


* the anti-Papist laws resulted in subdivision into smaller and smaller tenancies; however, the introduction of potatoes allowed a family of six to live on an acre and a half – as long as there were potatoes. There was no technology to effectively store potatoes at the time; the peasants lived from year to year.


* The Corn Laws gave a tremendous incentive for landlords to grow wheat for export to England. They had a guaranteed price.


* The Irish tenants worked growing wheat but lived off potatoes. Wheat was grown for export only, to the extent that there was no infrastructure for processing it in Ireland. Woodham-Smith reports that a contemporary never saw an oven in an Irish peasant’s cabin, Irish housewives had no idea how to bake bread, and the closest flour mill to the city of Cork (as an example) was 30 miles away.


* Since Ireland was self-sufficient in food (as long as there were potatoes) there was no incentive to develop an infrastructure for food imports and practically no importers existed.


* Since tenants paid rent in kind (with the wheat harvest) and grew their own food, there was a severe shortage of actual money since there was no need for it. Woodham-Smith reports that Irish peasants that somehow acquired (for example) a pound note or a guinea coin usually pawned it for a fraction of its value in small change – since nobody had enough pennies to break it.

Thus everything the British government tried foundered on the rock of Irish reality. First it was attempted to import “Indian corn” (maize) from America. That didn’t work because there were few facilities to grind corn and most people didn’t know what to do with it once it was ground. It didn’t help that there was a minor bad year in the rest of Europe as well, and the French and Prussian governments had bought up most of the available corn, wheat and rye in America before the British got around to it. The Irish were assured that “food was coming in” when all that had actually happened was that agents in the US were instructed to purchase grain that wasn’t actually available.


Then an attempt was made to provide public works – usually roads (Woodham-Smith comments that there are still roads in Ireland that don’t seem to go anywhere, because they were make-work projects during the Famine). That didn’t work either; the road workers were paid, but there was no food to buy with the money.


Various other schemes were tried, and finally the British government threw up its hands and announced that Ireland would have to feed itself. (It didn’t help that England had a financial crisis of its own and at one point was in danger of running out of gold reserves.) “Rates” on landowners were raised to confiscatory levels so that the starving could be supported in workhouses under the Poor Law; the only result, of course, was landlords desperately trying to export even more food to try and pay their debts, and evicting tenants so they would go somewhere else and some other workhouse would have to support them.


Every peasant that could afford it fled to America. Woodham-Smith points out that most actually fled to Canada, since the passage was cheaper; there was an extensive trade in timber from Canada, but most of the timber ships went back in ballast because there wasn’t enough population in Canada to support an import market. Ship-owners quickly found that Irish made perfectly good ballast and “coffin ships” crossed the Atlantic, throwing the deceased overboard as they died of starvation or “ship fever” (typhus). The survivors were quarantined, first on an island in the Saint Lawrence, then on the ships themselves when the island filled up. Anybody who made it through that quickly crossed the border to the US, having soured on anywhere in the British Empire.


The life lost in the Famine is controversial; Woodham-Smith estimates a million but concedes that nobody really has a good count and many people probably died unrecorded in Ireland, on ships, or in quarantine in Canada. Some estimates are as high as six million.


I found Woodham-Smith (who was of Irish ancestry herself) is an eminently readable historian and has excellent insights into the causes, effects, and results of the Famine. As mentioned, the only flaw I find was her failure to realize that it was Government policy that had screwed up Ireland with an artificial economy in the first place and that more Government policy couldn’t fix it. There’s lots of meat here to make analogies to modern times – governments and individuals that assume that Third World countries have the same infrastructure as the First World; the profound failure to recognize the Law of Unintended Consequences in government actions; and the assumption that governments have infinite resources and just need to apply them to solve any problem. Highly recommend. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 23, 2017 |
While it is very, very difficult to read, the dehumanising of an oppressed people has many parallels in our society today: from the genocide in Rwanda, to the survivors of Hurrican Katrina, the similarities are stark. And appalling.

Ms. Woodham-Smith has done her research and found numbers and statistics from tiny towns to the British Parliament's documents to show how utterly devastated the Irish people were even before the Famine. She starts in the years before, most especially with the Devon Commission in 1838 that warned of a looming disaster for the island. At especial risk were the poor tenant farmers who could not afford the land on which to work, and were forced to live in the worst sort of housing. A pig and a pile of manure were often their only possessions.

She then starts, month by month, sometimes day by day, to document the sudden and irreversible blight that struck the Irish potato crop. She also pulls in the documentation from other parts of Western Europe that also show a complete loss of the potato crop, most notably in Belgium and England, though only in Ireland was there widespread famine.

The British Government refusing to allow soup kitchens, forcing people to work at building roads in order to earn money to pay for food, and consigning people to work houses is grim reading. The fact that the Irish did not speak English and were used to a barter economy, rather than a monetary economy, did not help. Many did not know what money was. Most importantly, in order to keep the cost of corn and other food commodities high, no food from Ireland was allowed to feed the people of Ireland: it had the highest food imports during that year of any British colony. Economic decisions affected this time and caused the deaths of millions.

The census of 1840 put the Irish population at 8,000,000, while those who knew the country know that there were another million or so living in bogs and on mountains. By the end of the famine, in about 1848-9, with the deaths and immigrations, there were about 2,000,000 living Irish on the island.

Excellent, well-researched book that is difficult to read (both in language in subject matter), but well worth the effort. ( )
  threadnsong | Jun 18, 2016 |
An excellent case study in compassionate conservatism of how the English, unaffected by the potato famine upheld their purity in the belief about the free markets and watched from afar in horror how the wretched Irish died. As John F. Kennedy's reading of The Guns of August helped him understand and resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this book could have prevented most of the misery caused by austerity politics as the Irish had 150 years earlier experienced that pulling oneself out by one's own bootstraps only succeeds if Baron Münchhausen does it.

The British failure were: 1. Ballistic (one-off) decisions that were unable to cope with dynamic situations. The planting and ordering cycle meant that an annual and conservative approach was almost certain to undershoot the required help. 2. Reliance on local inept management. Ireland was in part poor due to the absence of a functional bureaucracy and good government. In the crisis the British should have used their navy and army to quickly establish a support system. 3. Too early cut backs of the help. The British dismantled the barely coping systems before the patient was stabilized (think: US government austerity) so that Ireland fell to experience a fully unnecessary cycle of suffering.

In contrast to the myth ("send me your tired and poor"), the United States closed off its harbors to Irish immigrants as good as it could (requiring ship owners to post bonds for the creditworthiness of their Irish passengers). Canada took in more and poorer Irish immigrants (who then moved south of the border). ( )
1 vote jcbrunner | Jan 31, 2014 |
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Once again to G.I.W.-S.
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At the beginning of the year 1845 the state of Ireland was, as it had been for nearly seven hundred years, a source of grave anxiety to England.
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A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop. On all sides we hear of the destruction. In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in Covent Garden market...As for the cure for this distemper there is none...We are visited by a great calamity which we must bear. - August 2, 1845, Dr. Lindley
The great evil with which we have to contend, is not not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character of the people.' - Charles Edward Trevelyan to Colonel Jones, Dec 2, 1846
When we entered a village, our first question was, how many deaths? 'The hunger is upon us' was everywhere the cry, and involuntarily, we found ourselves regarding this hunger as we should an epidemic, looking upon starvation as a disease.' - W.E. Forster
By that cross, Mary, I swear to avenge your death. As soon as I earn the price of my passage home I'll go back and shoot the man that murdered you - and that's the landlord. - Meath emigrant at his wife's funeral
To preserve from desecration, the remains o f 6,000 immigrants who died from ship fever A.D. 1847-48, this stone is erected by the workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts employed in the construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859. - The Victoria Bridge and railway sidings now occupy the site of the sheds at Point St. Charles
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Examines the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and its impact on Anglo-Irish relations.

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